There is such a thing as a movie with too much violence. That would be exploitation- violence for violence’s sake, designed to shock, and sometimes meant for our enjoyment. This serves no bigger purpose and it exposes our baser nature. Isn’t it wrong to enjoy gore, to get pleasure from violence*? You have to tell a story with the violence, and you have to elicit a proper reaction from the audience. Some movies are frankly too violent: many slasher films, 300, the Hostels. Some teeter on the edge: Gladiator, the Kill Bills, and now Drive.
Drive is about a man (Ryan Gosling) we know only as Driver (like Cher, but with more mystique). He’s a stunt driver in Hollywood, but he moonlights as a getaway driver. His boss, played by Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston, calls him the best driver he’s ever seen and says he can do anything behind a wheel. Driver lives in an apartment next door to Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband (Oscar Isaac) is in jail, though he left her with a son, Benicio. Both Irene and her son form a sort of relationship with Driver after he helps them with (of course) car trouble. There are obviously sparks between Driver and Irene, but as far as we can tell, they remain chaste, though who knows what the camera isn’t showing us. After Driver spends enough time with Irene that we expect something to happen, her husband comes home from jail, bringing trouble in the form of unfinished business with some heavies. Driver offers to help him out, and what follows are some incredibly violent but enthralling sequences that I won’t spoil here. I can say though that Driver gets mixed up with some baaad bad gangsters, Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman), who happen to be sponsoring Driver in an upcoming race.
This is a hypnotic movie, stylized in the way we expect ’80s movies to look and layered in synths by Cliff Martinez. It’s very quiet most of the time; Driver and Irene rarely talk. In fact, Drive thrives on studying the looks they give each other when more verbose people in lesser movies would perhaps overshare. However, Drive also explodes with violence, and this violence serves to characterize these people. Brooks’s gangster’s anger problems and amorality come through when he’s given the chance to be violent, and Driver’s own violence surprises him, revealing layers that maybe even he didn’t know were there. But his acts of brutality, however noble in their motivations, almost consume him, and they begin to alienate him from the other characters, setting up the final, frustrating, beautiful scene.
Gosling has quickly become one of my favorite actors. He gives a performance here distinct from any of his others, subdued, but with a volatile quality. Mulligan is radiant under director Refn’s camera’s gaze. She doesn’t have that much to do, but she does quite a bit through simple facial expressions and glances. Gosling does most of the heavy lifting here, along with Brooks, who is a master of subtlety combined with explosiveness (along with everything great about this movie). He steals the movie throughout. Cranston and Perlman turn in nice, nuanced supporting roles.
Drive is a great movie. Nicholas Winding Refn has crafted a beautiful American debut. It’s rare that a movie so violent is also so lovely.
*Without getting too much into it, this is what disturbs me about violent video games. Playing a violent video game, you’re the creator of blood and gore, and it teaches you to be numb to it. Sure, it’s not real, but just like movies have a certain impact on our psyche when we watch them, video games have even more potential to do so, because they put us in control.